The one thing everyone can agree on is that the outcome of the second round of the French legislative elections was inédit, unprecedented. It was utterly unexpected, too. Emmanuel Macron had every reason to believe after his re-election on 24 April that the legislative ballot would conform to precedent, with the presidential alliance coasting to victory.
Since the introduction of the five-year presidential term in 2002 and the alignment of the electoral calendars, the freshly elected head of state has been all but guaranteed a comfortable legislative majority. Parliamentary elections became an afterthought to the all-important presidential contest, reflected in the ever increasing abstention rate, which reached a historic 52.5 per cent in the first round this year on 12 June.
In 2017, the party (or ‘party’) that Macron had created ex nihilo the previous year, La République en Marche (LREM) – whose parliamentary candidates were third-tier defectors from the Parti Socialiste (PS) and Les Républicains (LR), along with political novices no one had heard of – won 308 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly.
This year LREM led an electoral alliance, called Ensemble!, including François Bayrou’s centrist Mouvement Démocrate (MoDem) and former prime minister Édouard Philippe’s centre-right Horizons. Polls early in the campaign projected an absolute majority for Ensemble! (289 seats or more), but it became clear in the final three weeks that it could fall short, and by as many as 25 seats.
There seemed to be two possible outcomes: either a narrow majority for Ensemble! would mean Bayrou and Philippe – both political heavyweights – holding considerable sway in what would in effect be a coalition government; or failing to cross the threshold of 289 would oblige Macron to contain his Bonapartist instincts and seek support from the opposition, the logical party being LR, the erstwhile pillar of the French right. Complicated but doable.
But in a result projected by not a single poll, Ensemble! won only 245 seats on Sunday: 44 short of a majority. Never before in the 64-year history of the Fifth Republic has a newly (re)elected president been deprived of a legislative majority to this degree. It’s a debacle for Macron, whose most senior lieutenants in the National Assembly, the former interior minister Christophe Castaner and the Assembly president Richard Ferrand, were defeated in their constituencies.
Macron apparently forgot that his landslide in April owed more to a repudiation of his opponent than an affirmative vote for him. He waited until the third week of May before appointing a new prime minister and cabinet, which then proceeded to do almost no campaigning (in part perhaps because it had no programme to run on). Macron pulled a proposal out of a hat to fix the democratic deficit but, given the solitary, vertical manner in which he exercises power, it fell flat and was forgotten within days.
The president gave voters no good reason to accord Ensemble! a majority, and the vaporous LREM was even less capable of doing so. With Marine Le Pen and her Rassemblement National (RN) looking to pose no threat – the two-round single-member constituency electoral system has always been unfavourable to the extreme right – Macron and his camp aimed their fire at Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Sociale (NUPES), the electoral pact he forged in May, which the macronistes demagogically red-baited as an extreme left-wing mirror image of the extreme right-wing RN.
LR won 61 seats, but the party president, Christian Jacob, yesterday ruled out a coalition deal with the macronistes. There has been speculation that Macron could reach out to moderates in the NUPES, i.e. the PS and Europe Écologie-Les Verts (EELV), since under the NUPES deal, which otherwise heavily favoured Mélenchon’s radical left-wing La France Insoumise (LFI), the parties will sit separately in parliament. The PS, EELV and Communists (PCF) may have negotiated with Mélenchon under duress – there was no other way to save their electoral skins – but it’s inconceivable that any of them would be tempted to break ranks and cut a deal with Macron.
The NUPES ended up with 131 seats, fewer than the lowest end of pollster projections, and even if some of them were contemplating collaboration with Macron they wouldn’t be numerous enough to be of use to him. Mélenchon’s polarising persona – his disapproval rating has been over 60 per cent for the past five years – was clearly a handicap in the second round of the election. That said, LFI will be sending some 75 deputies to the National Assembly, the most for the radical left since the PCF’s heyday in the 1970s. And despite Mélenchon’s caudillo-like domination of his party, LFI has several high-profile, media savvy personalities, who will be an outspoken opposition force in the Palais Bourbon.
All the polls predicted that LFI would be the leading opposition party, but that role will now – and this is the most stunning outcome of the election – fall to Le Pen’s RN, which won 89 seats, a historic high for the party of the extreme right. Absolutely no one saw this coming, least of all Le Pen herself, who set much more modest objectives and barely campaigned until the final two weeks. The most generous projections had the party taking fifty to sixty seats. But in the event the RN, running on anti-Macron anger, swept constituencies not only across its traditional strongholds in the northeast and along the Mediterranean, but also in parts of the country where it has had shallower roots.
In the second round of the presidential election, enough of Mélenchon’s supporters turned out for Macron to keep Le Pen out of the Elysée. But it seems that they didn’t repeat the favour in the legislatives, and LREM voters whose candidates were eliminated in the first round didn’t repay it. Their abstentions helped open the door to the RN.
Among the consequences of the RN’s success is that it will very possibly chair the National Assembly’s all-important finance commission and receive public funding that will enable the heavily-indebted party to expunge its debts, which includes a 2014 loan of €9 million from a Russian bank.
Will France descend into political instability, or even become ungovernable? Some observers and pundits are suggesting as much. Whatever happens, the life of the French parliament – another precedent – is going to get very interesting.